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Starts With A Bang

This One Award Was The Biggest Injustice In Nobel Prize History

Front side (obverse) of one of the Nobel Prize medals in Physiology or Medicine awarded in 1950 to researchers at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. (ERIK LINDBERG (DESIGNER); JONATHUNDER / WIKIMEDIA COMMONS (PHOTOGRAPHER))

Many deserving potential awardees were snubbed by the Nobel committee. But this takes the cake.


Every October, the Nobel foundation awards prizes celebrating the greatest advances in numerous scientific fields.

Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite and holder of 355 patents, established in his 1895 will his wishes to develop the Nobel Prize foundation and the rules under which it should be governed. After his death in 1896, the Prize has been awarded annually since 1901, with the only exceptions coming when Norway was occupied during World War II. The rules have been altered before, and could well be altered again, but currently prevent more than three winners for any particular prize in any year. (NOBEL MEDIA AB 2016)

With a maximum of three winners per prize, many of history’s most deserving candidates have gone unrewarded.

Lise Meitner, one of the scientists whose fundamental work led to the development of nuclear fission, was never awarded a Nobel Prize for her work. In perhaps a great injustice, Nazi scientist Otto Hahn was solely awarded a Nobel Prize in 1944 for his discovery of nuclear fission, despite the fact that Lise Meitner, a Jewish scientist, had actually made the critical discovery by herself. A onetime collaborator of Hahn’s, she not only never won a Nobel, but was forced to leave Germany due to her Jewish heritage. (ARCHIVES OF THE MAX PLANCK SOCIETY)

However, the greatest injustices occurred when the scientists behind the most worthy contributions were snubbed.

Physics Professor Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu in a laboratory at Columbia University, in a photo dating back to 1958. Dr. Wu became the first woman to win the Research Corporation Award after providing the first experimental proof, along with scientists from the National Bureau of Standards, that the principle of parity conservation does not hold in weak subatomic interactions. Wu won many awards, but was snubbed for science’s most prestigious accolade in perhaps the greatest injustice in Nobel Prize history. (GETTY)

Theoretical developments hold immense scientific importance, but only measured observables can confirm, validate, or refute a theory.

Unstable particles, like the big red particle illustrated above, will decay through either the strong, electromagnetic, or weak interactions, producing ‘daughter’ particles when they do. If the process that occurs in our Universe occurs at a different rate or with different properties if you look at the mirror-image decay process, that violates Parity, or P-symmetry. If the mirrored process is the same in all ways, then P-symmetry is conserved. (CERN)

By the 1950s, physicists were probing the fundamental properties of the particles composing our Universe.

There are many letters of the alphabet that exhibit particular symmetries. Note that the capital letters shown here have one and only one line of symmetry; letters like “I” or “O” have more than one. This ‘mirror’ symmetry, known as Parity (or P-symmetry), has been verified to hold for all strong, electromagnetic, and gravitational interactions wherever tested. However, the weak interactions offered a possibility of Parity violation. The discovery and confirmation of this was worth the 1957 Nobel Prize in Physics. (MATH-ONLY-MATH.COM)

Many expected that three symmetries:

  • C-symmetry (swapping particles for antiparticles),
  • P-symmetry (mirror-reflecting your system), and
  • T-symmetry (time-reversing your system),
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would always be conserved.

Nature is not symmetric between particles/antiparticles or between mirror images of particles, or both, combined. Prior to the detection of neutrinos, which clearly violate mirror-symmetries, weakly decaying particles offered the only potential path for identifying P-symmetry violations. (E. SIEGEL / BEYOND THE GALAXY)

But two theorists — Tsung-Dao Lee and Chen Ning Yang — suspected that mirror symmetry might be violated by the weak interactions.

Schematic illustration of nuclear beta decay in a massive atomic nucleus. Beta decay is a decay that proceeds through the weak interactions, converting a neutron into a proton, electron, and an anti-electron neutrino. An atomic nucleus has an intrinsic angular momentum (or spin) to it, meaning it has a spin-axis that you can point your thumb in, and then either the fingers of your left or right hand will describe the direction of the particle’s angular momentum. If one of the ‘daughter’ particles of the decay, like the electron, exhibits a preference for decaying with or against the spin axis, then Parity symmetry would be violated. If there’s no preference at all, then Parity would be conserved. (WIKIMEDIA COMMONS USER INDUCTIVELOAD)

In 1956, scientist Chien-Shiung Wu put that idea to the experimental test.

Chien-Shiung Wu, at left, had a remarkable and distinguished career as an experimental physicist, making many important discoveries that confirmed (or refuted) a variety of important theoretical predictions. Yet she was never awarded a Nobel Prize, even as others who did less of the work were nominated and chosen ahead of her. (ACC. 90–105 — SCIENCE SERVICE, RECORDS, 1920S-1970S, SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION ARCHIVES)

By observing the radioactive decay (beta decay, a weak interaction), she showed that this process was intrinsically chiral.

Parity, or mirror-symmetry, is one of the three fundamental symmetries in the Universe, along with time-reversal and charge-conjugation symmetry. If particles spin in one direction and decay along a particular axis, then flipping them in the mirror should mean they can spin in the opposite direction and decay along the same axis. This property of ‘handedness,’ or ‘chirality,’ is extraordinarily important in understanding particle physics processes. This was observed not to be the case for the weak decays, the first indication that particles could have an intrinsic ‘handedness,’ and this was discovered by Madame Chien-Shiung Wu. (E. SIEGEL / BEYOND THE GALAXY)

In 1957, Lee and Yang were awarded the physics Nobel; Wu was omitted entirely.

The 1957 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to the two theorists, Lee and Yang, who predicted that the weak interactions would exhibit parity violations. They went to Wu in 1956 and asked her if she could design and perform a decisive experiment, which she did, and yet she was left off of the Nobel Prize entirely. Even the Nobel foundation’s press release didn’t include so much as a single mention of her. (© NOBEL MEDIA AB 2019)

Even today, only three women physicists — Marie Curie (1903), Maria Goeppert-Mayer (1963), and Donna Strickland (2018) — have ever won Nobel Prizes.

Donna Strickland, a graduate student in optics and a member of the Picosecond Research Group, is shown aligning an optical fiber. The fiber is used to frequency chirp and stretch an optical pulse that can later be amplified and compressed in order to achieve high-peak-power pulses. This work, captured on camera in 1985, was an essential part of what garnered her the 2018 physics Nobel, making her just the third woman in history to win the Nobel Prize in physics. (UNIVERSITY OF ROCHESTER; CARLOS & RHONDA STROUD)

Mostly Mute Monday tells a scientific story in images, visuals, and no more than 200 words. Talk less; smile more.

Ethan Siegel is the author of Beyond the Galaxy and Treknology. You can pre-order his third book, currently in development: the Encyclopaedia Cosmologica.

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